17 November 2022

From dementia to evolution

"For the first time, natural selection has almost stopped working" — biologist Denis Andreyuk Maria Ganiyants, "Moskvich"

Candidate of Biological Sciences Denis Andreyuk at some point became interested in high-tech and changed his field of activity: now he is an associate professor at the Faculty of Economics of Moscow State University and teaches management to students, and he is engaged in science at the research center at the Alekseev Psychiatric Clinical Hospital No. 1, where he studies collective intelligence and participates in a project to isolate two dozen major genes, provoking dementia.

You have a rather unusual career trajectory. How did a graduate of the Moscow State University biofac, who defended his thesis there, become an associate professor of economics and a researcher at the main psychiatric clinic in Moscow?

I was engaged in academic science at the biofac until 2004, taught and was an associate professor. But then it all came down to the economy. Salaries of MSU teachers in the early 2000s were scanty, money was sorely lacking, I remember my wife and I chose cheaper salt in stores. This situation suited me as long as I, as a teacher, had free housing from the university in the Main Building (GZ) on Vorobyovy Gory, but when there was a threat that our room in the GZ could be taken away, I had to change jobs. I moved to the commercial sphere, to the high-tech company NT-MDT, which produced high-precision instruments — scanning probe microscopes. I went there to the position of a copywriter (and what to do, even at the very beginning of my work I received almost three times more than when I was an associate professor at Moscow State University), but over time I grew up to director of marketing and PR. After 10 years I left, founded my own agency and worked quite successfully for myself. But when I was invited to the Economics Department of Moscow State University to teach marketing (first for the MBA program, and then for students), I was happy to return to my alma mater. In parallel, I had other projects, for example, I participated in the creation of a regional network of children's technoparks "Quantorium", where I was responsible for the biological direction, worked and still work in the Russian Association for the Promotion of Science (RASN), founded by the famous physicist, academician Evgeny Velikhov. At RASN, I was engaged in gathering scientists from different disciplines at general events. There, the chief psychiatrist of Moscow, Georgy Kostyuk, drew attention to me and invited me to the N. A. Alekseev Hospital to help him create an interdisciplinary research center.

Did it work?

Yes, but it wasn't easy. Doctors and scientists are different spheres. For the most part, scientists are undisciplined, few people go to work before 11.00, it is difficult to plan something for a long time with us, since there is always a chance that either scientific interests or global trends will change. In medicine, nothing has changed for decades, medical workers are extremely responsible, even a five-minute delay is regarded as a crime. But everything turned out in the end, today our research center is engaged, in particular, in the development of genetic testing for predisposition to Alzheimer's disease.

Did I understand correctly that you are trying to do an Alzheimer's test by analogy with a PCR test?

Yes, together with colleagues from the V. A. Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology, we selected a panel of 23 of the most common genetic mutations that can serve as risk beacons, and we collected them on one gel chip. After the chip passes clinical trials and is registered as a medical device, it can be widely used as a cheap and mass test to identify the risk of Alzheimer's disease. I hope that in two or three years it will be possible to do an analysis in any polyclinic and get a result in a couple of hours - to find out your degree of genetic risk.

Alzheimer's, of course, is an unpleasant thing, but is it not as common as the same COVID to test it massively?

You shouldn't think that. Although if we take people with an established diagnosis, then yes, slightly less than 10% in the 65+ age group. But, firstly, not all elderly people who have difficulties with memory and attention are taken to the doctor, that is, this disease is noticeably underestimated in statistics. Secondly, with each passing year, a person's chances of even a formal diagnosis increase. For example, for the age group of 85-90 years, this is already 30%. Let us recall at the same time that the average life expectancy in Moscow is constantly rising. And finally, epidemiologists note the "paradoxical" feature of age—related dementias - their proportion among other diseases in the population is growing year by year. In general, I would say that about one in four residents of a megalopolis has a sufficiently significant probability of encountering Alzheimer's disease so that it makes sense to organize mass screening and prevention. Both this disease and other types of dementia are now being actively studied, there are quite a lot of developments that allow delaying the onset of the disease.

Every fourth resident of a megalopolis has a significant probability of encountering Alzheimer's disease, it makes sense to organize mass screening and prevention.

For example, the Alekseev Hospital has been working for many years on the project "Memory Clinics" — a network of centers free of charge for Muscovites, where you can go if there is a cognitive decline, for example, regular memory problems. If the tests confirm the initial stage of dementia, then a person is waiting for six weeks of physical and psychological training. In our research center, we have been studying the effectiveness of these trainings for patients for several years and now we can confidently say that even simple regular physical exercises can add five to seven years of active life to a person at risk for Alzheimer's.

Do you claim that physical education is more effective for the prevention of dementia than, say, learning foreign languages?

There is no consensus in the literature on this subject and there is still little comparative data to say something with confidence. But it seems that the picture is exactly like this: in the first place is physical activity that requires coordination of movements, dancing, for example, or gymnastics. On the second — socialization, communication, an elderly person should not be alone. If the children-grandchildren have left, then you can just chat with other retired neighbors (grandmothers on benches from our recent past did it for a reason) or get a dog and communicate with other dog lovers. And only intellectual activity and cognitive exercises — language learning, chess, etc. - are in third place in terms of the strength of the effect.

So, genes with mutations cause dementia, but regular training can fix everything — isn't there a contradiction here?

Genes by themselves do not cause disease. Each of the "wrong" genes slightly changes the nature of a person's reaction. For example, stress, which is usually the main source of problems in the work of the brain, not only in old age, but the elderly have much less opportunities to repair damage. As a result, with the help of statistics alone and the already accumulated arrays of big data, we can say: this mutation is significantly more common in those who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease than in those who have normal memory and attention at the same age. Mutation is not necessarily the cause, it is a marker, a sign that a person has a slightly higher than average chance of getting sick. And usually one mutation in complex diseases means a very small part of the risk. To be in a serious risk zone, a person must have a large set of different marker mutations in his genome.

This general model, which allows you to summarize all the effects of mutations and determine the percentage probability of a disease, say, dementia, for each person, can be extrapolated to other areas.

Which ones exactly?

Now, as a researcher, I am interested in how collective intelligence works and develops. I want to make the same general model as we did for Alzheimer's genes, for three behavioral traits that determine our interaction in society: the desire to dominate or obey, sociability and the desire to establish and maintain social connections, and, finally, intelligence, which is also genetically regulated. By measuring these characteristics on a large group of people, we will get important parameters of the information circuit, which is similar in principles to biological neural networks. The neuroevolutionary (neurosocial) paradigm provides a methodological foundation for creating diverse and predictable social interactions and understanding what kind of society will be formed in the near future on this territory.

I am interested in this area primarily as a real opportunity to make scientific and educational communities as effective as possible, and not as the development of regular mechanisms to manage the crowd. On November 17-18, at the forum ReForum Winning the hearts, I will just talk about society as a global neural network of the future, about the principles of society and whether it is possible to model the evolution of civilizations, as well as how people are connected to each other.

Previously, almost everyone who was born with pathologies and abnormalities was doomed to death.

It is known that the growth in the number of connections between people and groups actively affects the computing power of society. The easiest way to see this is by the example of cities: it has been proven that the speed of technology development increases non-linearly in places of heavy congestion of people. In other words, as soon as there are a lot of people in a certain city or territory, new technologies are rapidly developing there, startups are emerging, etc. Therefore, intellectual growth in Moscow will always be faster than in a small city. And if you choose the right scientific teams and organize their work correctly, then you can only increase the effectiveness of scientific research tenfold due to this. According to this principle, by the way, academic towns and science cities were organized in the USSR. But it's not just genetics that works in teams, ideas are also important.

Why are there so many difficulties with a single common ideology or religion at all times? Because it contradicts the very nature of information processing in a group. It is advisable to build cooperation technologies in the form of strategic scenarios, according to which groups that are close in semantics are first united by important and common topics for them, then merge with other united groups with the help of new topics that are already common to the whole new structure, and so on, up the tree of meanings.

At the same time, it is clear that unification in any case is possible only for a very short time. It will not be possible to unite everyone forever.

And based on the genetic analysis of the remains, can we understand how the societies of the past were arranged?

Technically it is possible. Recently, Swedish geneticist Svante Pebo received the Nobel Prize for deciphering the genome of Neanderthals and our other ancient relatives, Denisov people. His research proves that both Neanderthals and Denisov people inhabited the territory of Eurasia before Homo sapiens (Cro-Magnons) arrived there from Africa about 70-80 thousand years ago. Then, for thousands of years, these Homo sapiens interbred with both (this was also proved by Pebo). Then something happened, and about 40 thousand years ago the Neanderthals disappeared, the genome shows that the crosses stopped. Who knows what happened there. But until now, about 2-6% of the genome of Neanderthals has remained in Europe, and in Asia, in particular in Altai, the same amount of the genome of Denisov people.

How quickly does the human species change?

Very slowly. If we are talking about genetic changes, for hundreds of thousands of years, man has not changed much. But cultural codes and social rules change much faster. Another thing is curious: for the first time in the history of mankind, we live in a time when natural selection has almost stopped working. Previously, almost everyone who was born with pathologies and abnormalities was doomed to death. Natural selection took away the most vulnerable and weak, and a narrow group remained, according to the characteristics of age and health.

The society was healthy and young. And now even seriously ill children with congenital pathologies and orphan diseases are not doomed, they integrate into society, some live to reproductive age and even give offspring. And if this situation lasts for another hundred years, humanity will become as diverse as ever.

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